From the escalating crisis in Ukraine to multifaceted Chinese efforts to pressure Taiwanese leaders, there appears to be a worrying rise in international crises and militarized disputes. States initiate these crises in, and sustain pressure through, gray zone campaigns. Gray zone campaigns create new routes to circumvent conventional deterrence and achieve previously obstructed goals while presumably avoiding the incurrence of risk. As states continue to adopt gray zone tactics, traditional deterrence dynamics could potentially hold less bearing in preventing future conflicts. Within this new field of competitive interaction between states, the coexistence of potential escalation pathways seems plausible.
At what point does the pressure generated and sustained by gray zone campaigns escalate, and what are the implications for modern strategy if it does?
In current and future standoffs with states like Russia and China, the U.S. and allied decisionmakers will confront shadow risk, a tendency to defer escalation decisions, and as a result, could inadvertently assume a more aggressive posture in future confrontations. This broadly suggests that unchecked gray zone coercion raises the risk of a crisis between the United States, U.S. allied nations, and an antagonist operating within the gray zone. There is a strongly implied need to expand current crisis communication channels between both our allies and rivals.
Modern great power competition seems to flourish in the gray zone. From Russian New Generation Warfare and integration of coercive campaigns to the Chinese concept of war control, antagonists are challenging the security architecture of the post-Cold War world. These coercive, albeit often ambiguous, measures prefer subversion and undermining resolve to direct confrontation. They repeatedly take advantage of modern networks and use cyberspace as a form of political warfare. Even the United States military is developing new approaches to this competition continuum. The objective is to maneuver around adversary red lines, using measures short of force to gain a competitive advantage through campaigns built around misinformation, diplomatic isolation, and economic coercion as much as they are displays of military force.
While the gray zone is preferred to war, the national security community doesn’t have a systematic appreciation of when or how these interactions – what Herman Kahn referred to as a sub-crisis maneuvers – become a step to war.
To better understand escalation dynamics in the gray zone, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) conducted 20 crisis simulations over the fall and winter of 2021 and analyzed the results using social science experiment methods to isolate risk attitudes. The resulting study uncovered that gray zone competition might be prone to previously unaccounted for escalation pathways. The researchers found a recurrent tendency to defer risk into the future, producing shadow risk, in treatments with long-term military response options. The results imply an inversion to the classic commitment trap in international relations. The adage that Germany started World War I in 1914 over concerns about the shifting balance of power by 1917 is potentially reversed in gray zone campaigns. Players seeking to avoid taking risky moves in the short term increase escalation risks in the long term when crises prove intractable. This finding also reinforces earlier literature on rivalry, which sees increasing threat spirals in each subsequent crisis between states like China and the United States — especially when they are subject to interest asymmetries, shifting power transitions and cycles, as well as territorial concerns and third-party alliances.
Policymakers from Beijing and Moscow to Washington and its network of partners need to better understand all potential escalation risks inherent in gray zone campaigns. To do this, there must be an expansion of crisis communication channels and even participation in multitrack simulations and wargames not only for Washington and its partners, but also with rivals. Shadow risk presents a new form of inadvertent escalation that could turn a future dispute into a dangerous war absent a mutual understanding of strategic choice and crisis bargaining.
To this end, and in support of its calls for integrated deterrence, the Biden administration should expand (and test) the crisis communication channels it has with rival nuclear powers. Those channels are certainly getting worked through the Ukraine crisis and would have only benefited from prior exchanges. These exercises should include holding crisis simulations and wargames that bring together a mix of national security professionals and policymakers to help build a common understanding of escalation risks. The events should include partners and allies as well as representatives from rival great powers. By using open, unclassified forums to talk about great power competition, leaders gain an appreciation for how rivals see disputes and bargain. Better to play a game today than fight a war tomorrow.
For an overview of the methodology used in the tabletop exercise, please see here.